Articles: Mainboards

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Testbed Configuration

We carried out our tests on a testbed that included the following components:

  • ECS Z77H2-A2X (v1.0) mainboard (LGA 1155, Intel Z77 Express, BIOS version 13.06.12);
  • Intel Core i5-3570K CPU (3.6-3.8 GHz, 4 cores, Ivy Bridge rev.E1, 22nm, 77 W, 1.05 V, LGA 1155);
  • 2 x 4 GB DDR3 SDRAM Corsair Vengeance CMZ16GX3M4X1866C9R (1866 MHz, 9-10-9-27 timings, 1.5 V voltage);
  • Gigabyte GV-R797OC-3GD graphics card (AMD Radeon HD 7970, Tahiti, 28 nm, 1000/5500 MHz, 384-bit GDDR5 3072 MB);
  • Crucial m4 SSD (CT256M4SSD2, 256 GB, SATA 6 Gbps);
  • Scythe Mugen 3 Revision B (SCMG-3100) CPU cooler;
  • ARCTIC MX-2 thermal interface;
  • Enermax NAXN ENM850EWT PSU;
  • Open testbed built using Antec Skeleton system case.

We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version, AMD Catalyst 12.4 graphics card driver.

Operational and Overclocking Specifics

We had no problems of any kind during system assembly on ECS Z77H2-A2X (v1.0) mainboard. However, before starting our test session, we usually update the BIOS with the latest version available at the time of tests. However, this is where we had to face quite a disappointment: there were no newer BIOS versions available. This isn’t a big deal, and it happens all the time, if the board comes with a pretty new BIOS version already, but unfortunately, there was only one single BIOS version available dating back to the late March of 2012 and launched in early April 2012, right before the release of the new seventh series chipsets, including Intel Z77 Express. It looked like no one cared about this mainboard once it had been launched. Once we checked out the mainboard and the BIOS and noticed that it improved a lot compared with the versions we saw on older mainboards, but still had a few things that could be addressed, we requested an updated version. We got a BIOS version from 13.06.12, which we used for all benchmarks and screenshots in this review. Unfortunately, the only thing different was the release date, while all uncovered minor issues remained intact.

The testbed on ECS Z77H2-A2X (v1.0) powered on fine and started working normally, although it was somewhat strange that by default only the additional ASMedia ASM1061 controller was set to “AHCI Mode”, while all drives connected to the chipset ports were still working in “IDE Mode”. It is not really a problem, you can easily change this setting, but it is unclear why they would do it this way. The board displays a modest start-up image with the useful reminders about the hot keys. There are not options that would allow you to disable this image, so there is no way to see the startup info during boot-up.

With the default settings the board had all system components work in their proper nominal modes, except for the higher memory voltage, which we already discussed above. All power-saving technologies worked fine, too, right from the start. You encounter some challenges only when you attempt to modify some settings or make adjustments. For example, the automatic overclocking mode didn’t kick in after we used the “Quick OC” parameter in the BIOS. The voltage increased, but the processor clock frequency multiplier remained unchanged. It could, actually, be for the best, because looks like the proposed overclocking method could only work well with Sandy Bridge processors, but not with Ivy Bridge ones, because the core voltage was set 0.2 V higher, while the clock frequency multiplier was supposed to hit 45x. The good thing is that this automatic overclocking system does use XMP profile for the memory frequency. In fact, only memory actually got overclocked in the end. Note that in this case the board used the correct memory voltage of 1.5 V, which was recorded in the XMP profile. We have already mentioned that the board sets higher memory voltage by default, and there is no way for the user to lower it manually. So, it ends up being not quite logical: the memory working at 1333 MHz uses increased to 1.62 V voltage setting, while at overclocked 1867 MHz the voltage drops to 1.5 V.

During manual overclocking when the processor clock frequency multiplier does get adjusted, the board turns off all power-saving technologies. Therefore, if you pursue smart and energy-efficient overclocking, do not forget to turn them back on manually. Remember, they are not in the “M.I.B.X.” section among the majority of overclocking-related options, but in the “Advanced” section. Unlike other manufacturers’ mainboards, the processor Load-Line Calibration cannot be adjusted: it can only be turned on or off. You can’t set the desired Vdroop value. Despite pretty limited feature set we managed to overclock our test processor to 4.5 GHz, which is a good result under the circumstances, but the maximum of 4.6 GHz remained unattained.

You may have noticed that the processor Vcore is extremely high, but it is mostly because the board seems to be reporting higher values than the actual ones, as the CPU temperature remained within normal range even under very heavy operational load. Another thing worth pointing out: the memory frequency was increased with the help of an XMP profile, while the board set 9-10-9-27-1T timings on its own. In fact, the profile timings read 9-10-9-27-2T and we normally manually correct them. As we have already said before, ECS Z77H2-A2X (v1.0) mainboard doesn’t allow adjusting any settings if you select the XMP profile, so these not quite correct memory timings were actually to our advantage. This is a very lucky coincidence, but the overall flexibility of the BIOS settings still leave more to be desired.

Now I would only like to remind you that we always overclock mainboards in such a way that they could be used for a prolonged period of time in this mode. We do not try to make our life easier by disabling any of the mainboard features, such as onboard controllers, for example. We also try to keep the CPU's power-saving technologies up and running normally to the best of our ability. And this time all power-saving technologies remained up and running even during overclocking lowering the CPU voltage and frequency multiplier in idle mode.


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